When I think of football, I usually think of masculinity. Large, strong men suit up and tackle one another with the most power they can possibly muster. I like football, but it is definitely the epitome of machismo.
As I read The New York Times last week, I was surprised to find that University of Houston head coach Tom Herman kisses his players on the cheek before each game. That definitely didn’t sound like your typical football displays of camaraderie to me.
Apparently last season, Herman’s first with the team, he kissed strength coach Yancy McKnight during practice. While the players were shocked, they eventually grew accustomed to Herman’s behavior as he began to extend the same love towards them. It has since become tradition that Herman kisses each player as they gear up before every game.
In the Times article, Herman spoke about his affection and explained, “How do you motivate a human being to do things against his own nature? There are two things: love and fear. And to me, love wins every time.”
And love is definitely helping this Houston team. Last season, the Cougars finished eighth nationally, the best results the team has seen since 1980. With a 6-2 record this season, Houston even has high hopes of an invitation to the Big 12 Conference.
Herman didn’t just start this tradition at Houston but has been integrating love into football since his days at Sam Houston State a decade ago. While he worked at Ohio State, the coaching staff also ingrained this message of brotherhood into players, which is where Herman got the idea to require athletes who score a touchdown to hug an offensive lineman. The Houston team not only receives love and support from coaches but also from each other, creating an unbreakable bond between teammates.
Several psychologists cited in the Times article noted how sports teams built on love and compassion do best because they have a connected community. Humans, contrary to popular belief, are not driven by competition but instead by such strong friendships.
It’s no surprise that in football emotions are silenced for fear of not being manly enough. Players assume emotional displays will make them appear feminine. But Houston players don’t think that way anymore. As Herman goes to kiss each man, they return the favor with a hug. Within the Houston squad, this emotional display is how you show you’re a man.
It is rare for men, particularly male athletes, to show their feelings, which Herman regretted was true for so many of the Cougar players before joining the Houston squad. He said, “I can tell you I was disappointed–they said it was the first time they’ve ever been kissed by a man.” For many, if not all of his players, Herman debunked the stereotype that men cannot be affectionate towards other men.
While team sports create a dynamic bigger than the individual, competition itself can only get players so far. Teams only become cohesive when athletes love one another. That’s when teams reach their full potential and Herman has undoubtedly achieved that with Houston.
It’s sad that stereotypes of masculinity are so deeply embedded in male athletes that sports often do not create a safe space for emotion. Showing love and admiration should not be limited to women because men also need positive reinforcement to succeed on and off the field.
It’s incredibly refreshing to hear that the Houston team embrace emotion, especially in such a masculine sport as football. If more male teams adopted Herman’s brotherhood philosophy then maybe this machismo would slowly start to dwindle, making room for more love.